Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In meandering through approximately ninety years of Badgery history, Herbert develops as many themes as he spins yarns. The more important, however, involve various forms of lying. As Herbert says, lying is his main subject.

The great Australian lie, according to Herbert, is the claim that Australians are their own masters. During his lifetime, they have accepted English, European, American, and finally Japanese dominion of varying kinds colonialist, economic, cultural. In its persistent, sprawling diversity, the novel resembles a fantastically prolonged yarn that might be told at a country pub. Herbert cannot understand, however, why he sees everywhere Australians who complacently and indifferently undersell themselves and whatever is of value to them to the highest foreign bidder. This is not to say that the book is a political diatribe. Carey builds his case so gradually and unobtrusively that the book remains entertaining.

At the same time, a darker significance emerges. As the episodes of Herbert’s yarn endlessly proliferate, his caustic larrikin’s voice acquires a bitter tone. The humor has soured by the time Herbert becomes a withered old man. In retrospect, his opening words, “It is hard to believe you can feel so bad and still not die,” can be taken literally, not simply as comic bathos.

Many other applications of lying, including fiction itself, are studied in the novel. Herbert’s memoirs are, for example, a demonstration of distinctive Australian modes of mythmaking. The epigraph from Mark Twain suggests the central place of this aspect of the Australian psyche. Australian history, Twain said, reads less like history than “like the most beautiful lies.”

Ultimately, lies and other varieties of deception and unfulfilled aspiration take a personal toll on Herbert. He is an odd man with little sense of humor or forgiveness. Yet because he acknowledges those shortcomings, the final, sad laugh is his.